Ursula Mueller always wanted to be a diplomat, a writer or an inventor.
"I knew very early this is what I wanted to do. I think I have done all three of them," she said about her childhood ambitions and career in the German foreign service.
In 1995, Mueller became Germany's first ombudsman for promoting professional women at the Foreign Ministry, a position she held for six years. She has written two books, including "Nimble, Skilled and Dispatched," which was published in 2000. And through her 25 years as a diplomat, she has had to be quite inventive in dealing with unusual circumstances.
At 48, she is now the top female diplomat at the German Embassy here, in charge of U.S.-German cooperation on Afghanistan and the politics of that traditionally male dominion of counterterrorism.
Mueller arrived in Washington in mid-2001 and began settling in as an economics counselor at the embassy. Weeks later, on Sept. 11, she looked out of her office window on Reservoir Road NW and saw smoke billowing from the Pentagon. She had no idea that the calamity would lead her to the Afghan capital.
Joschka Fischer, then foreign minister, requested her presence at the first meetings in Germany on the Afghan reconstruction issue in early December 2001. A few weeks later, she was in Kabul, unlocking the gates of the German chancery after a 23-year closure.
With the shelves in her Washington apartment newly assembled and her piano perfectly tuned, Mueller had to abandon all creature comforts for a bulletproof vest, a sleeping bag, a Swiss army knife and a kerosene burner. As she was packing, she also threw in a few candles and Christmas stollen, a sweet bread.
After arriving in Kabul, she needed to quickly find a Dari interpreter. The first woman who appeared at the gate was invited in and offered the job. Within hours, Mueller was on her way to becoming an ardent advocate for women in post-conflict Afghanistan.
With donations she had collected at a farewell party in Washington, Mueller bought three sewing machines for Afghan women to use in an income-generating project. The women first made long coats for themselves to replace the all-encompassing burqas they had been forced to wear. Then they made clothing to sell.
Mueller launched schools for girls, literacy classes and vocational projects for women, and suggested including women in training at the police academy.
"There was nothing more rewarding than seeing in Afghan women's eyes that joy, their expectations just because I was there for a little time, at that particular place," she said.
On Christmas Eve 2001, she discovered an old grand piano in a corner of the Kabul residence. She summoned the skeleton staff and security guards to a meal and to sing carols, and together they belted out verses of "O Tannenbaum" and "Stille Nacht." The instrument was woefully out of tune, but holiday cheer prevailed, she said.
The German media dubbed her Fischer's "secret weapon."
"I learned the system," she said, her brown eyes darting back and forth under her perfectly shaped brows and cropped hair. Her crisp white shirt and trim black jacket contrasted with a shiny silk scarf, opera-length pearls and angular gold jewelry.
While serving as ombudsman, Mueller left her mark on the Foreign Ministry. She never supported quotas but believed in mentoring women fresh out of college and helping them move up the career ladder, "not only in Burundi and Rwanda but in more strategic positions in larger embassies."
Mueller had a "standing invitation" from Fischer to accompany him on trips to gather ideas for training women in the foreign service for hardship postings. She visited Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia, among other countries. Her advice to women: "Never give up, work harder, keep your sense of humor. Be persistent, do it all with respect," a strategy she learned while coaxing Foreign Ministry officials to institute change.
"I always looked for arguments that would show how new practices would be in their best interest," she said. "Women still call me for advice, and it is important to help one another. Not all women do."
Meuller, who has a transatlantic significant other -- a professor in Germany -- became so good at helping women and giving them advice that she inadvertently became the unofficial ombudsman for men who wanted to make time for their families without appearing meek or lacking in ambition.
One day, she received a call in Berlin from a European Union specialist who wanted to take a part-time position or leave his job to take care of his three children, so his wife could return to the foreign service. But he was at a loss about how to discuss the issue with his boss.
"Those men suffer a lot, they miss out on so much. The system can be so brutal, and they are afraid they would be at a disadvantage later," she said. "Tell him you could be trendsetter in the Foreign Ministry, I advised. Be accommodating. Agree to work three days a week or whatever suits your superior best."
It set a precedent, and now German foreign service officers do not hesitate to take paternity leave.